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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 18, 2005

18 February 2005, Volume 7, Number 7
STUCK IN A RUT. At the beginning of this month, three European lawmakers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly visited Minsk to see whether the situation in Belarus has changed for the better. They have apparently found nothing new or interesting to report to their colleagues in Europe.

Summing up the three-day trip, Fred Ponsonby of Great Britain told journalists in Minsk on 3 February that the situation in Belarus over the last two years can be considered "stagnant or stable," Belapan reported. Which means, Ponsonby added, that many aspects of life in Belarus have not improved. In fact, many aspects of life in Belarus have actually deteriorated over the past two years, even if their deterioration was not conspicuously fast but had a "stable and stagnant" character.

Belarus ended the year 2004 with two emblematic political events. On 17 October, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a referendum on lifting the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency. Simultaneously, Belarusians went to the polls to elect the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, the country's lower house. According to the official results, Lukashenka's hopes for staying in power indefinitely were supported by 5.55 million people, or 79.4 percent of all eligible voters. And Belarusians officially filled all but one seat in the Chamber of Representatives with Lukashenka's backers and associates.

An independent international pollster found that Lukashenka's proposal to clear the path to a presidency-for-life was supported by just 48.7 percent of all eligible voters, leaving it below the 50 percent threshold required for such a constitutional amendment. However, opposition protests against what appeared to be a blatant falsification of the referendum results were lukewarm, lasted only several days, and gathered several thousand people at best.

Since the 2001 presidential election, the Belarusian opposition seems to have remained in protracted disarray. Sadly, there are no signs that the opposition is able to muster up any significant support for its candidate, provided it would agree on such a candidate, to challenge Lukashenka in the presidential election expected in 2006.

To demoralize the Belarusian opposition even further, a court in Minsk on 30 December 2004 sentenced Belarusian opposition politician Mikhail Marynich, 64, to five years in a high-security prison and confiscation of property. The court found him guilty of misappropriating several computers that the Dzelavaya Initsyyatyva (Business Initiative) association, of which he was chairman, had received for temporary use from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.

The bizarre case against Marynich and the harsh sentence he received were of a plainly political character. To compare, on 8 February the Belarusian Supreme Court sentenced Halina Zhuraukova, former head of the presidential administration's Property Management Department, to four years in prison, finding her guilty of embezzling $3.4 million under the same article of the Criminal Code as applied to Marynich.

The 17 October 2004 referendum and the Marynich case have received a fair amount of media coverage both at home and abroad. On a daily basis, however, there are many depressing and gloomy developments that do not make the headlines. Like the aforementioned issues, these developments, too, testify to the growing consolidation of the Belarusian authoritarian regime, which has tasked itself with not only uprooting any political dissent but also curbing any other unwanted or suspicious behavior.

For example, on 11 February police charged activist Aksana Novikava with beggary after she attempted in the subway to raise private donations for what she called an "orange revolution" in Belarus. "Some gave money, some refused to, and some just laughed," Novikava told Belapan. But the police proved to be less amused; Novikava is facing a fine.

On 5 February, police detained opposition activist Syarhey Antonchyk and some 20 people that gathered at his private apartment. Police have accused Antonchyk of organizing an unsanctioned rally and drawing up a protocol. If the case goes to court, Antonchyk has the chance of becoming the first person punished in Belarus for inviting friends to dinner.

In January, the authorities fired Rehina Ventsel, a rector of Baranavichy State University, and her deputy Ivan Kitsun. A group of students from their university had cracked a joke about President Lukashenka's salary at a forum of students in Minsk. "Alyaksandr Ryhoravich, how big is your salary?" a student from Baranavichy asked another student who was impersonating the Belarusian leader. "Let me count. As president of the country I get 300 bucks per month. As president of the National Olympic Committee I get another 300 bucks. And I get an extra sum as supreme commander. Generally speaking, not so bad," the other wag from Baranavichy responded. Now all jokes from Baranavichy State University intended for the public reportedly have to be approved by the university's ideological supervisors.

In Minsk, the independent Belarusian-language literary magazine "Dzeyaslou" has recently been removed from Belarusian bookstores run by the Belkniha state distribution network. Belkniha reportedly charged that "Dzeyaslou" propagates smut by printing foul language. "Dzeyaslou" Editor in Chief Barys Pyatrovich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Belarusian bookstores are full of books by Russian authors with expletives and nobody is going to ban them.

According to Pyatrovich, the measure against "Dzeyaslou" is purely political -- the magazine has recently published several stories by Vasil Bykau, who remained very critical of the Lukashenka regime until his death in June 2003. In November 2004, the Belsayuzdruk state retail sales network for printed publications refused to distribute "Arche," another high-profile independent literary magazine in Belarus, while Belkniha refused to distribute an "Arche" issue that documented Lukashenka's decade in power.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, last week Belarusian state-run bookstores began stocking a book glorifying Soviet-era dictator Josef Stalin. The 700-page book, named "To Stalin Bow, Europe," is a collection of articles by Stalin as well as texts venerating the Soviet dictator by other authors and political leaders of the past. "This collection, which glorifies Stalin and condemns his closest entourage, is yet another attempt to whitewash the image of the Soviet leader and lay a theoretical foundation for the transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism that we are witnessing in Belarus," Belarusian independent historian Ihar Kuznyatsou told Belapan.

DOES YUSHCHENKO NEED SECOND THOUGHTS? New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was inaugurated on 23 January, has issued a number of decrees that raised many eyebrows not only among Ukrainian political observers but also among some of his political supporters and allies from the Orange Revolution.

In particular, both the appointment of regional governors and the creation of the Presidential Secretariat seem to open sources of potential controversy and possible conflicts within Ukraine's new governing elite. Simultaneously, these initial presidential moves also offer an insight into what appears to be the beginning of a struggle for political influence within Yushchenko's closest entourage.

To start with, the public appointment of 24 oblast administration heads by Yushchenko in the Verkhovna Rada on 4 February, which took place shortly after the appointment of a new Cabinet of Ministers led by Yuliya Tymoshenko, seems to be at variance with the Ukrainian Constitution. As indicated to journalists by lawmaker Viktor Musiyaka from the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine bloc, Article 118 of the constitution stipulates that regional governors are appointed to their posts following their nomination by the Cabinet of Ministers. But, in actual fact, the newly appointed ministers had not even had time to congratulate each other on their new jobs before they heard the names of new governors recited by Tymoshenko from the parliamentary rostrum and before Yushchenko signed a string of relevant appointment decrees.

In theory, a group of 45 lawmakers is sufficient for submitting a petition to the Constitutional Court to challenge the appointments of governors. According to Musiyaka, the Constitutional Court cannot but cancel Yushchenko's regional appointments -- all of Ukraine witnessed on live television the government's inauguration as the new president was publicly violating the Basic Law. However, judging by the overwhelming support for the new prime minister and the new government's program in the Verkhovna Rada -- 373 and 357 votes, respectively -- such a legal challenge by lawmakers is not very likely.

But the situation may turn very nasty for Yushchenko if some of the dismissed governors take court action demanding that they are reinstated in their governorships and paid financial compensation for the period they were unlawfully pushed out of their posts and deprived of their salaries. According to Musiyaka, irrespective of whether former governors will protest or not, Yushchenko urgently needs to cancel his 4 February decrees on governors and issue new ones, following an appropriate nomination procedure by the Cabinet of Ministers.

Why has Yushchenko made such a major legal blunder at the very start of his presidential career? Most likely, it happened because he was heavily preoccupied with satisfying the collective appetite of his political allies for government jobs and did not have enough time to ponder the procedural side of the appointments. Although it is not exactly known who wanted what in the new government, the televised ceremony of appointments in the Verkhovna Rada on 4 February clearly testified to a harsh and up to the last minute fight by Yushchenko's political adherents for various government jobs. For example, it could be seen that Yushchenko decided on the appointment of Roman Bezsmertnyy as deputy prime minister and Vitaliy Oluyko as Khmelnytskyy Oblast governor at the very last moment, literally minutes before signing the relevant decrees, much to the visible chagrin of Prime Minister Tymoshenko, who had announced that these posts would remain vacant for some time.

The respected Kyiv-based independent weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" has opined that only some 20 percent of the new governors can be categorized as Yushchenko's "relatively good" choices, while the other regional appointments are either "weak" or don't have a "fully positive character." Which should not be seen as a big surprise or even as an overstatement, given that Yushchenko had hardly talked to any of the 24 governors before their nominations or had briefed them on their duties in the regions they are to govern. Most likely, Yushchenko made the regional appointments leaning solely on consultations with top political players from his election coalition.

The appointment of Vitaliy Oluyko to the post of Khmelnytskyy governor is a graphic example of what problems Yushchenko may expect from the regions in the future. The appointment of Oluyko provoked a vehement reaction from raion leaders of the Yushchenko election campaign in Khmelnytskyy Oblast, who staged anti-Yushchenko pickets in Khmelnytskyy and Kyiv on 9 February, claiming that Yushchenko made a terrible mistake in awarding the man who worked for his rival, Viktor Yanukovych, during the campaign. The next day Oluyko tendered his resignation and the resignation has reportedly been accepted by Yushchenko. Why did Yushchenko decide on Oluyko at all? Because Oluyko was reportedly recommended by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, whose People's Agrarian Party has joined a pro-Yushchenko parliamentary coalition and been given a "quota" of government jobs for making this move.

Another disturbing decree by Yushchenko is the creation of the Presidential Secretariat to replace the presidential administration created by former President Leonid Kuchma in 1996. Under the leadership of Viktor Medvedchuk, the presidential administration turned into the chief body of executive power in Ukraine, relegating the Cabinet of Ministers to a minor role. Yushchenko has pledged to strengthen the Cabinet of Ministers and turn the presidential administration into a consultative body dealing primarily with technical and bureaucratic issues of the president's activities. But the decree on the Presidential Secretariat, which was purportedly signed by Yushchenko on 27 January but made public only on 16 February, explicitly gives this body the right "to participate in working out drafts of presidential acts during all stages in the Cabinet of Ministers, the National Security and Defense Council, and other organs of state power" as well as "to ensure and control their implementation."

Some have already protested that the Presidential Secretariat is poised to become Ukraine's "second Cabinet of Ministers." The bureaucratic structure of the Presidential Secretariat, Ukrainian observers note, practically reflects the Kuchma-era presidential administration, even if the secretariat's departments and sections now bear different names. As an innovation, the current Presidential Secretariat includes a mysterious unit called the Presidential Cabinet (kabinet prezydenta) -- whose prerogatives are yet to be determined in a separate decree -- in addition to the no less puzzling Presidential Office (kantselariya prezydenta).

Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 16 February that the Presidential Secretariat, led by State Secretary Oleksandr Zinchenko, "fully duplicates" the structure of the Cabinet of Ministers chaired by Tymoshenko and is set to aspire to performing some Cabinet of Ministers functions as well. Tomenko also warned that the State Security and Defense Council (RNBOU), constitutionally headed by Yushchenko but on a daily basis managed by its secretary, Petro Poroshenko, may emerge as yet another center of executive decisions under the Yushchenko presidency, in addition to the Presidential Secretariat, the Cabinet of Ministers, and Yushchenko himself.

Tomenko said he has heard rumors that the post of RNBOU secretary is to be renamed into that of RNBOU deputy head -- that is, the president's deputy in the RNBOU -- in a forthcoming presidential decree on new RNBOU prerogatives. "If everything happens according to such a scenario, we will have one more prime minister, Zinchenko, and a vice president, Poroshenko!" Tomenko predicted. Tomenko is not the only one in Ukraine who is concerned that Yushchenko may not be so eager to meet the election pledge of running a transparent government in which the functions and prerogatives of its constituents are clearly defined and not duplicated or overlapped by other bodies. Judging by all appearances, Orange Revolution combatants and brothers-in-arms have already entered a postrevolution stage of internecine warfare in the corridors of power. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"My interview [with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka] continued for one and a half hours. I want to say that I've simply fallen in love with this man. He radiates a sort of folksy warmth, like a log cabin, which is very warm throughout any cold winter. Your eyes just open up and you see everything in a different way." -- Arkadii Mar, identified by Belarusian Television as editor in chief of the Russian-language weekly "Russkaya Amerika" in New York; quoted by Belarusian Television on 14 February. Belarusian Television additionally reported that readers of "Russkaya Amerika" named Lukashenka the best politician in 2004.

"I do not want to see corrupt authorities. I do not want to know the price for [obtaining the position of] Donetsk Oblast police chief because nobody will pay that price.... I want to tell you: Either you have the honor, as officers, to protect Ukraine, as you've sworn, to the last drop of your blood, or you go to work for mafia bosses.... I don't like the criminal system of power, I don’t like bribes that these authorities used to accept primarily in these walls." -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to police officers in Donetsk on 10 February, while introducing newly appointed Donetsk Governor Vadym Chuprun to the regional administration staff; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"My main message with which I came here is completely Ukrainian. No pathological ideas of separatism or federalism coming from sick people will be developed. I am promising this to you. This is no joke. These people will be held responsible before the law." -- President Yushchenko in Donetsk on 10 February; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"I remember as I was met in Donetsk in October 2003 with posters depicting me in an SS uniform. I ask the oblast leadership: Who ordered the printing of those posters, who disseminated them? If you are convinced that I am really such a man, then prove it publicly. But if you cannot prove it, I'll make you apologize and account for that. I don't want to forgive you for that." -- President Yushchenko in Donetsk on 10 February; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.